by Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington
Gospel: Mark 6:1-13, Luke 4:14-30
Jesus said: “A prophet is not honored in his own country.”
This summer I went back to Jackson, Minnesota, for my family reunion which happens every three years. My immediate family did the 'Jackson thing;' that is, we drove by my childhood home, the car dealership, and the new church in Jackson which was built by a rich farmer who gave his land. We then out to the cemetery and saw my parents' graves and tombstone. Like always, it was a very emotional moment for us as we gathered in a circle around the gravestone to think, remember and pray.
While in Jackson, I remembered the two times I preached in my home church in my hometown. I didn’t have much religious authority either time. I preached on the occasion of my parent's fiftieth wedding anniversary (they were married sixty five years) and family union. All my relatives showed up for church that day and I had my family stand which they proudly did, and then I simply said, "You have never seen such large group of sinners standing together in your whole life." People chuckled, I think because of the truth of the matter. The remark didn’t add my authority as a preacher but is remembered as a family story.
I didn’t have much religious authority among those Jacksonites who were present that day. They remembered me as 'little Eddie Markquart' who gassed their cars, lubricated and washed their vehicles, swam in the swimming pool, fished in the river, played on the basketball or football teams. They knew me as the little boy of Ede and Ed Markquart and 'whoever thought he would turn out to be a pastor?'
And I didn’t have much religious authority that day with Mrs. Hague. Mrs. Hague was there at that worship service. She was still elderly, still wearing her black horned rimmed glasses, still wearing the black lace ribbon that attached to the glasses so she could hang them around her neck. She didn’t hear my sermon at all that day on the occasion of my parents' fiftieth. She just sat there in the pew, itching to tell me something. I knew it.
Right after the service, she found me and said: "Do you remember what you said at your ordination sermon a few years back?"
No, I had no idea. "What did I say?"
She said: "You said you were kind of wild as a kid and that everyone was kind of surprised you were going to become a minister. You said the only difference between you and the other kids in town was that you never got caught."
That is all she remembered from my ordination ten years earlier. She never heard the sermon; she only remembered that I was like all the other kids but just didn't get caught. All she could think of was a silly remark that I made so many years ago. I didn't have much religious authority Mrs. Hague's life; that's for sure.
And I didn't have much religious authority with my family, including my parents. When my parents were alive, they would often say, "We’re gunna ride your coattails into heaven." It was a joke, but not a joke. I also had little religious authority with my brother and sisters. They would say me to: "Well, Pastor So and So said," and then they quoted another pastor. They told me what their pastor said. They knew me too well as their kid brother to have much religious authority in their lives.
Now, this isn't the same with you and our relationship. I have been a pastor here for more than twenty- seven years. You have listened to my preaching and teaching and leading of the Gospel for almost three decades and you have an intuitive respect for me and the pastoral office that I hold. You don't know me as little Eddie Markquart who was like all the other kids in town; the boy who was your paper boy, grease monkey and gas pumper. For the most part, you actually have respect for my spiritual authority.
It is with these images that we approach the Gospel story for today where Jesus said, "a prophet is not accepted in his own home country." The Gospel story for today is told in all four gospels, so I will use them all. I will especially use the Gospel of Luke's version which seems the best story to me.
Now the situation was this: Jesus was on a religious roll. Let me explain. When you do three miracles in three days, you are on a religious roll. Two days before, on Wednesday, Jesus had miraculously stopped the storm on Lake Galilee. The big body of water, a section of Puget Sound, in front of Des Moines reminds me of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus calmed that sea like he was calming a demon in the waters of Puget Sound. The next day, on Thursday, the lady who had had a menstrual period for more than twelve years, was healed. It must have been miserable and annoying (to say the least) to have a menstrual period for twelve years. Jesus healed her. And then on the very next morning, Friday morning, Jesus raised the dead daughter of a man and woman who were grieving. Some of you have shared that pain, of a child dying. So you have three days and three big miracles in a row. So Jesus was on a religious roll.
So now we come to the scene of Friday night, and Jesus was coming into his home town and home sanctuary. Let me tell you, the service that night was jammed. There wasn't room to park all the donkeys outside. They ran out of bulletins. They put benches up in the center of the aisles. It was crowded, because the 'local rabbi made good' was coming back to town.
Jesus came into the crowded service that night, and the worship service had an order much we like have on Sunday. They began with singing of songs, like we do, from their songbook, the book of Psalms. Then they had a prayer, like we do. Then they read from an Old Testament lesson, like we do, from the Law, the first five books of the Bible. And then the guest of honor was to choose from any passage in the Old Testament prophets. The passage he chose revealed his core values. So when Jesus chose to read from Isaiah 58, this passage symbolized his whole ministry. He chose the following passage out of Isaiah which would then became the basis of his sermon that night. Jesus read: "The Lord God has appointed me to preach good news to poor people, to heal the blind and sick, to set free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." This passage from Isaiah 58 clearly outlined the important values in Jesus' ministry. That is why he selected Isaiah 58. Jesus then closed the book. There was a looooong silence, and he said: "These words are fulfilled in your hearing." Then he preached a sermon on that text, and afterwards, the Gospel of Luke says that "everyone spoke well of him and wondered at his gracious words." Others exclaimed, "Where did he get all of this!" And still another said, "Where did he get so wise?" ….. But yet there were others who murmured and grumbled, "Isn't this the son of Mary who is sitting over there? And aren't those his brothers standing there, Judas, Joses, and Simon? And aren't those his sisters? He is just the common kid from Nazareth. You know, the kid who grazed our donkeys; who watered our animals, who drew water from the well for us to drink. There is nothing too special about him."
And pretty soon, according to the passage, "they took offense at him." That is the key word of the text: offense. In Greek, it is “skandalon” from which we get the word, “scandal.” Scandal also means “stumbling block.” This is a key word, scandalon or stumbling block, and we will talk about it later in the sermon.
Then a clash began to develop and Jesus said, “A prophet is not accepted in his own home. A prophet is not accepted in his own home congregation. A prophet is not accepted in his own hometown. That was true of the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Elijah and the prophet Elisha. Elijah and Elisha could do no miracle in their regions because the people didn’t believe in them. Elijah and Elisha had to go elsewhere to find true faith. And likewise with me: I don’t see any true faith in this room. You are more interested in 'in just doing religion' than in justice. You are more interested in my popularity and publicity than in the poor, maimed, blind and lame. You are more interested in religious celebrations than a life lived under the cross. You substitute doing religion for doing God’s will. The Messianic age is beginning with me.” And the people took offense at Jesus. They were mad at him. They were so offended by Jesus that according to the Gospel stories for today, they ran him out of the church. They ran him right up to the edge of a high cliff and were going to kill him. Think of that scene from Friday night. The congregational members had come in with such high expectations. Jesus was on a huge religious roll; the church was jammed; but by the end of the night, they were ready to kill the dude.
So Jesus must have said something that really got on their nerves. What was it that Jesus said that offended them so deeply that in the Gospel of Luke, they took him up to a hilltop and tried to kill him? What did Jesus say that was so offensive? That is what I would like to try to get at in today’s sermon. The key word is 'offended.' They were offended by Jesus! What was it that he said that was an offense, a stumbling block for them?
Obviously, the hometown folk couldn't believe that one of their own children could actually be a prophet. Jesus was suggesting that he was even more than a prophet. He was claiming that he was the long awaited Messiah, and the people weren't ready to accept him. "Come on. He watered our donkeys. He cleaned our yards. He grazed our donkeys. No way he could be a prophet. How can this Jesus-guy come back and be even more than a prophet, the Messiah? Not little Jesus of Nazareth. Not the little Jesus boy that we used to go fishing with and swimming with and hiking with. Not the little neighborhood boy who delivered our papers. How could God come in such a common and ordinary way as to come through Jesus of Nazareth? Jesus certainly doesn’t measure up to our expectations of what it means to be a messiah."
The people there that day were offended by the Incarnation, that God actually became a human being. That was the scandal, the stumbling block.
I would like you to imagine our acolyte sitting over there. Acolyte (Jeremy Moore), raise your hand. No, please come and stand by me. Now I would like you to imagine that this Jeremy Moore has been raised in the church. He is baptized and comes to worship and Sunday School, gets confirmed here, goes to the Mexican orphanage, graduates, goes to college, comes back, goes to the seminary, comes back and stands before you in this pulpit and declares: “I want you to know that I am the Messiah.” As soon as he says that, we are going to run this kid out on his ear, right now. We’ll send him back to the funny farm. He has crazy ideas and he is crazy. And that is what was going on. A local town kid like Jeremy came back to the synagogue and said he was the Messiah. It was offensive. It was so offensive because everyone knew that the Messiah must be super successful and super successful. We know our local acolyte, Jeremy, so well that he couldn't come back and say that he is the Messiah. This is deeply offensive. It is a scandal to the mind, a stumbling block to our intelligence.
O yes, we can believe in the face of God behind the universe. We can believe in the force of energy behind the stars. We can have deep spiritual experiences with Jesus during some wonderful night around the campfire. We know that vast majority of the human race believes in a spiritual force within us. We can believe in the divine moral law of the universe that people of all cultures must obey. All cultures of the world have an implicit moral law. A God of the universe, of spirituality, of morality seems more plausible for the mind. But to believe that God could come to us through some acolyte like Jeremy Moore seems to be pushing it. And that is what so deeply offended the people. The Incarnation: that God would come in the flesh of a man they knew, a man by the name of Jesus from the town of Nazareth.
You see, there are things that are really offensive about the Christian faith. I have been thinking about those stumbling blocks which get in your way of faith which means I am thinking of those stumbling blocks which get in my way of deep faith in God. In the text for today, Jesus talked about his listeners having little faith. Examples? What are some of the things in the Christian faith that make it hard for us to believe? Suffering. Why do good people like Patty Arnold die of cancer at forty years of age or Randy Johnson die at age forty, a potent young attorney, and this was the second adult death of a child for his mom and dad. That offends us. That upsets me. Or another stumbling block. Of all the religions of the world, how do you know that Christ and Christianity are the right one? There are so many different brands of religion in the world. Or another stumbling block in the Christian faith is this: God invites us to go and love our enemies. Another stumbling block in our faith are many of the important Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, resurrection, and the miracles. I received an email the other day and the person reminded me that Thomas Jefferson was not a traditional Christian but a Deist and that he had trouble in believing in many of the traditional Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, the resurrection and miracles. And for still others, a stumbling block is the awareness of the evolution of religion. That is, in Emil Durkheim’s book, THE ORIGIN OF RELIGIOUS FORMS, he mentions the time when the human race didn’t have a religion. He asks the fundamental question: Did God create mankind or did mankind create God? What a question. And so each of us may have a stumbling block that gets in the way of our deep faith in Christ. Jesus invites each of us to mature and grow through the stumbling blocks that weaken our deep faith in God.
And another great offense of the Christian faith is that God chose to come to earth as a snot-nosed, little kid who was a carpenter, a gofer for carpenters, a man who would swing the hammer. It upsets us that God would come so commonly. I can accept God would come in my spiritual experiences and I can accept God in the moral law of the universe and I can accept God who created the sun, moon and the stars; but to accept and believe that God came as a human being pushes us intellectually too far. Why? God isn’t supposed to come in such ordinary ways. So what was so offensive on that Friday night was the Incarnation; that God chose to come as a human being.
But I would like to take it a step further. I have been thinking, and I would like to give you a series of examples where we continue to be offended that God comes to us in such a common and ordinary way. For example, this happened recently, as recently as a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, or yesterday. It has happened to many times. A woman came to me and sat down in my office to talk. She having problems with her marriage. It was so clear to me what was going on. It was so easy. She asked: “What do you think that God wants me to do?” And so I told her. “It seems to me that this is God wants you to do.” And she replied, “I just wish God would tell me what to do.” She comes back the second time, explains the problem a second time, and says, “I wish that God would tell me what to do.” I tell her what she needs to do. She doesn’t hear. A third time the scene is repeated. “I am having problems with my marriage and I wish God would tell me what to do.” I tell her what it seems that she should do, and she says, “I wish God would speak directly to my life and tell me what to do.” And I finally said: “Hey, friend, God has been talking directly to you, but you aren’t listening.” And she said, “No, I want God really to talk to me.” I say, “Friend, God has really been talking to you.” She said, “No, I want to hear God’s voice.” I said, “You just did.” But somehow, it offended her that God could come in such a common and ordinary way as a parish pastor.
Let me give you a second example where God comes to us so commonly that we don’t hear God. This one really bothers me. God comes through a person or persons as near to us as …our family members. I only wish God would chose someone else….I only wish that God would chose someone other than my wife, my husband. Perhaps God could pick somebody else to talk to me. Not her again. Why couldn’t God talk to me through some pastor like O’Neal or Markquart. Not merely my spouse. How come my wife knows me so well that she knows the will of God for my life? She doesn’t sound like God. She doesn’t look like God. She doesn’t act like God. But consistently, God speaks to my life through my wife, through your spouse.
And the only thing worse than having God speak to you through your spouse is to have God speak to you through your teenage daughter. Yes, I said teenage daughter. In years past, my daughter Anne would say to me after I lost my temper: “Dad, you are getting just like Grandpa Markquart.” Now, that was not a compliment. And I wish that God would find some other way to talk with me about my temper. Give me a sermon, God. You don’t have to talk to me through my teenage daughter.
And so what I am trying to suggest to you is that God consistently comes to us and talks to us in common and ordinary ways, so much so, that we often don’t even hear the voice of God. Instead, we are looking for the divine symmetry of the universe or the moral laws behind various cultures or something spiritual which is found in all human beings.
Let me give you a third example of where God speaks so commonly to us: when God comes to us in the face of children and adults who are poor and starving. In my children’s sermon for today, I had four children try on four different masks. One mask was a picture of nature, that God is hidden behind the beauty of nature. God wears the face of nature. The second mask was a picture of a family, that God is hidden behind the love found in the family. Christ wears the face of a family. The third mask was the picture of the Bible and Sacraments; that God is hidden behind and within the Bible and the Sacraments. God is never, ever visible, but God is hidden in these means of grace. And the fourth picture was that of starving babies; that God’s love is hidden within the children and adults of poverty. And sometimes it is so hard to believe that. Sometimes it is hard to believe that Christ is really present and really speaks to our lives when we see someone who is experiencing great poverty and starvation. But that is the way God comes to us, in such common and ordinary ways.
As a pastor who visits nursing homes and retirement homes on a regular basis, I realize that there are richer homes where people wear nice clothes and look and act nicer. I also realize that there are poorer nursing homes where people don’t dress and act so nice. And at the poorer convalescent centers, not the richer homes for the aged, I would see such strange looking people. They were like grown up vegetables, grown up handicapped, grown up mongoloid people. And I would ask to myself: “Why does God come to us in such misery and pain? God seems so clear when looking at the stars of the universe, so clear when we look at the moral laws of the earth, so clear when God comes in our spiritual experiences. But when God comes to us through the truly poor and suffering and tragic, we are often truly offended….that the messiah doesn’t act very messianic. But Jesus comes to us through the faces and souls of the poor in our midst.
Let me give you a fourth example. God comes to us through the Word and Sacrament, through the Bible and sermons and studies, through baptism and Holy Communion. It is nothing fancy. When you have the eyes of faith, you see God and hear God through the commonness of God’s Word and Sacraments. Why, my voice in the sermon for today is actually the voice of God. Hmmm.
It was quite a summer, this past summer, with our family reunion and all. At our family reunion, we have a family worship service on Sunday morning, and I didn’t have to preach this year. My cousin, Doug Peterson, did. Doug had an experience where people led their partners with their eyes closed, so we could learn trust. We shouted names of our loved ones and family members long deceased. Some people laughed at Doug’s service. It was so avant-garde. But others? They realized that God comes to us in such ordinary ways, that sometimes we miss the voice and face of God. Amen.
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